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Women in fiction and in flesh & blood

By February 6, 2019No Comments

Source : The Tribune   –    Harjeet Singh Gill

Krishna Sobti’s writings introduced real women to the world. Her characters had real desires and dreams as well



The grand-old lady of Indian literature has passed into the universal history of letters and cultures. Krishna Sobti was, by any count or criterion, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. In her incessant writings and discourses, she tried to rectify the erroneous understanding of our history and tradition.

Was she a rebel? Was she a revolutionary? No, certainly not. She simply followed the classical tradition of the great philosophers of ancient India, who with Mimansa and Vedanta believed in the eternity of the spirit, and with Sankhya and Nayaya Visheshika believed in the eternal nature of matter. They were free thinkers who led to the tradition of great grammarians like Panini and Patanjali. With their absolutely free acts of life and unions, they traversed all conservative and fundamentalist obstacles of suppression of love and longings and advocated free and intellective thinking.

This was a universe of extremely incisive conceptual constructs and visions, which were not bound by the absolutely ignorant ‘scientific statements’ of test tube babies, plastic surgery and satellites in the mythical past.

With Mitro Marjani, Sobti presented to the humanity her characters in flesh and blood, having hot-burning desires. Our girls were neither household slaves nor imaginary goddesses. They were real young girls who longed for love and friendship and not a life of slavery and bondage.

The discourse of Mitro Marjani presented to the world an India of reason and logic, of sentiments and love. It was just the opposite of the Indian English writings in which our NRI writers presented an India of backwardness and ignorance. I call these writings tourist guides for the foreigners. Indian writers compose these to please their foreign publishers. They present an India that is pregnant with superstitions, an India that is still grounded in the abyss of the dark middle ages and one still embedded in the psyche of the West.

One cannot deny that in the present-day India, there are khap panchayats, naga sadhus, superstitions and honour killings, but one must understand that in every society, however, evolved it might be, there are always such fundamentalist, popular levels of primitive life. I have done extensive fieldwork in the US and France in the 1960s and I can assure, our Indian audience that such belief and practices are all over.

In the Btitany province of France, where my wife comes from, there is a church in every village for a different saint, who is supposed to cure one disease or the other just like our numerous goddesses who cure all our ailments. There are churches and synagogues where even today no electricity is used. There is such a synagogue in the most modern city of New York. There, only handmade candles are used for light. In several villages of Germany, crucifixion is enacted in flesh and blood. If Zindaginama begins with a Hindu woman’s invocation to a Sufi saint, it is perfectly in consonance with the mystic life of our people. It is followed by a very interesting description of the marriage of the children of the Sun and the Moon. For the students of social anthropology, these are normal descriptions.

We must, however, also realise that this is not the only aspect of any society. Of course, we have all this, but we have certainly another India that continues to follow the most incisive, intellectual discourses of our elders of yonder days. Our Buddhist, Jain and Nayaya logicians are not forgotten. Even the great narratives of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata show all aspects of human excellences and weaknesses. This is real India. And, it is this India that our great writer, and if I am allowed to use this epithet, our great intellectual novelist Krishna Sobti presents in her discursive enunciations.

She demonstrates in no uncertain terms how even the most ordinary Indians, the villagers, the denizens of small cities, not long ago, in the early years of the 20th century, could live at a certain level of folk wisdom, which could be the envy of any dialectician. In her simplicity, she followed the literary tradition of the Janam Sakhis and the Jatakas.

Sobti presented an India that was alive and kicking, full of desires and dreams of the world within, and the world without. Her descriptions were realistic. She described the Indian men and women dreaming of a world where there would be equality and freedom, where women would express their desires and sentiments, where they would discuss and discern the complexities of life. At times, they presented different discourses but there were no conflicts. Whenever there were misunderstandings or misconceptions, there were genuine efforts at human reconciliation. This was Sobti’s universe, her universe of life and death, her universe of longings and disappointments.

There were merry moments. There were sad episodes. But they all fell into a certain scheme of things. Her characters, her elders, brothers and sisters, lovers and beloveds struggled with their thoughts and discernings. In her magnum opus, Zindaginama, she presented a panorama on a vast canvas of the early years of the 20th century of feudalism, colonial suppression and oppression, rich and poor boys and girls. In a highly crystallised medium of Punjabised Hindi, she offered to the world of letters a feast of human unions and separations, of desires never to be fulfilled, of boundaries which were supposed to never be crossed.

This was the Punjab of the 1930s, a united Punjab, a Punjab where different religions could co-exist, where even feudal values were rectified, where the youth and age could live in a certain harmony. Like any great fiction, her oeuvre is surcharged with the admixture of the real and the surreal. Those who have read the Republic of Plato know how simple is its language and how abstract  its dialectic. The same is true for Zindaginama. Its language is so simple, it is deceptive in its highly abstract vision of the world. The disputations of the village folks transcend the mundane, the affairs of this world, from the perceptions of the other. This is how an incisive critic can differentiate the nuances of the text and the discourse in the sublime oeuvre of Krishna Sobti.

Notable works

  • Zindaginama
  • Daar Se Bichchuri
  • Mitro Marjani
  • Surajmukhi Andhere Ke
  • Aai Ladki
  • Gujarat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan


  • Sahitya Akademi Award (1980)
  • Sahitya Akademi Fellowship (1996)
  • Jnanpith Award (2017)

The writer is Professor Emeritus Jawaharlal Nehru University

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